Charlie Rangel's Image Problem
He's either sly as a fox or "brazen and arrogant." Never mind those ethics charges -- as the New York congressman campaigns for his 21st term in office, he seems determined to keep on doing the Harlem shuffle.
But that stance, according to many followers of politics in these dog days of summer, may not have been the best to take with Congress. Congress, after all, must still give him a trial or agree to a settlement of some sort. And it may not be the best way to win the Columbia University/Upper West Side portion of the district, which includes more highly educated and higher-income people (whites and blacks) who don't have an emotional tie to the Harlem political narrative.
So this is reality: Ordinarily, Rangel might have to work at repairing his reputation to woo these voters, says Ester Fuchs, a political scientist at Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. But, says Fuchs, "His greatest advantage is he's got no competition at this point; so even if people were unhappy with him, there's nobody compelling at this point to vote for." Given the millions of federal dollars he has brought into the district, including a huge portion of President Bill Clinton's urban-development program, along with his old-school gift for glad-handing, "most people don't think he's done anything worse than anybody else in Congress," Fuchs says.
For the record, there are four declared candidates trying to defeat Rangel in New York's Sept. 14 Democratic primary, but no one has broken from the pack -- and certainly, based on their own records, they haven't made the case for trading in Charlie. They still might focus their campaigns around the themes of Rangel's age and the ethics charges, but they are generally seen as lambs for the slaughter, paving the way to a more likely era-changing election in 2012. And this is the thing: By 2012, the leading candidates might be Hispanic or white.
For nearly 70 years, New York's 15th District, with various tweaks of its boundaries, has been considered "black." Two men have held the seat: first Adam Clayton Powell Jr., then Rangel. But long gone are the days when one would consider this a black district in a Harlem that was the black capital of the world. More Hispanics than blacks live in the district -- and so do a growing number of whites, thanks to Columbia University as a magnet and the prime real estate available at relatively bargain prices for those of a certain income bracket.
That is why Fuchs says that the more Rangel calls attention to charges many people remain clueless about, the more potential voters might think he protests too much and must be guilty of something. "He needs to do a deal and get this over with so that he can reclaim some of his legacy and leave on his own volition. I think what he fears most is being pushed out and being pushed out under an ethics cloud."
In the meantime, teams Rangel -- the one in New York and the one in Washington -- are cranking out press releases about campaign activities like the opening of an office in a predominantly Hispanic section of the district "as he kicks his reelection effort into high gear," as well as his push to bring "a new online and mobile application to better connect with his constituents and promote legislative interest, especially among the younger generations." This from a candidate who is not exactly an Internet master. His staff is working overtime to build an image that belies his 80 years.
He is his own best and worst adviser, by most accounts. As Paul, the "reputation doctor," puts it: "What he has decided -- even with the best counsel sitting in the room -- from a PR perspective, from a legal perspective and from a political perspective, is, 'Thank you for your advice, but this is what I'm going to do.' "